One of the best—if not the best—first contact novels, all the more for the way that an alien intelligence is discovered through information theory and cryptanalysis and remains ultimately mysterious and unknowable.
More than just a novel, this seems like a contribution to the philosophy of science. Nearly a decade before Latour and sociology of knowledge became prominent, Lem appears to have outlined their critical research program in broad brush strokes. The story works on multiple levels, as a social satire of the arrogance of scientists and the intellectual conflict between the ‘two cultures’, a critique of logical positivism, and also as a scathing portrait of ‘big science’ and the military industrial complex. Lem even manages to fit in a mockery of populist sci-fi along the way.
The erudition and aloofness of the narrator contributes to an extremely realistic psychological picture, but this relentless style does get exhausting and exasperating after a few chapters. I stuck with it because I found the themes and ideas so compelling. Nearly every page is fizzing with insights, to the point where it makes most contemporary academic philosophy texts seem embarassingly flimsy. Lem really knew what he was talking about. I’m starting to think that Lem’s fictional work has a similar relevance to techno-scientific epistemology that Ballard’s work has to industrial society and modernism.